So, you’ve finished a shiny new picture book manuscript. Woohoo! Congratulations! Finishing any story is a huge achievement! But what next?
Even if you find yourself in a blissful post-writing honeymoon period, and are head over heels in love with your manuscript, it is important to recognise that what you have produced is a first draft. There will almost always be editing to do.
Critique partners can be helpful in identifying any issues with your story. However, before you send your manuscript off to anyone, it really helps if you can take the time to do a first critique of your own story. There is no set formula for carrying out a picture book critique (whether of your own, or someone else’s, manuscript). However, I usually look at the following:
Does the picture book read well out loud?
This is vital. Picture books are created to be read aloud and performed to children. If you’ve not yet read your story out loud, do it now.
1. Read it to yourself, your kids, your cat, or even your goldfish. Take note of:
- Any words that you stumble over.
- Any parts of the story that seem to drag, or that you want to skip.
- If it is a rhyming story, be honest with yourself - is the rhythm and rhyme absolutely perfect and natural?
2. Read your book out loud AGAIN when you are tired. Most picture books will be read to children by tired grown-ups at bedtime. A tired reader does not tolerate wordiness, is more likely to skip sections that are dragging, and will struggle with alliterative sentences that seemed perfectly doable to the more alert reader.
3. Ask another adult to read your story to you. As the author you know your story inside-out. You know exactly how it is supposed to be read. However, you need to know how someone else would actually read your story. The results can be surprising, but incredibly useful (particularly with rhyming stories!).
Is the rhyme and rhythm perfect?
I won’t go into this in any depth here, as it needs its own full blog post, but points to check in a rhyming picture book include:
- Are there any forced rhymes? E.g. are you making the reader stress parts of a word that are usually unstressed just to fit with your rhyme?
- Have you considered other regional accents? Will the rhyme still work?
- Is everything a true rhyme? If not, can you re-write to avoid any near-rhymes?
- Go through your manuscript word by word, and syllable by syllable. Is the scansion perfect? By which I mean, have you got a consistent rhythm of stressed and unstressed beats (called the ‘metre’) throughout every single line? Have you written each line in such a way that it can only be read in the rhythm that you want it to be read?
- Be aware that some words are pronounced and stressed differently in the USA. I recently encountered this with the word ‘lasso’, pronounced [LASS-OO] in UK, but [LASS-OW] in the US. This totally threw my rhyme AND my rhythm!
- Is the rhyme leading the story, rather than the story leading the rhyme? Is your cat sitting on a mat only because this is convenient for your rhyming?
Is the picture book divided into 12 double-paged spreads?
The standard length for a picture book is 24 pages, made up of 12 double-page spreads. It is helpful to divide picture book manuscripts into these spreads. Some picture books are longer than this, and editors may subsequently change your spread layouts, but in general you need to ensure that your book can work well in this format.
The added advantage of this is that it forces you to start thinking about your manuscript as a book, which leads me onto the next few points I look at…
Does the text work with the illustrations?
When done well, picture books are a beautiful symphony of words and pictures. The illustrations and words should work together to make something amazing.
You should always have the illustrations at the forefront of your mind when you are writing your stories. Scribble or sketch out your pages, think about them in your head, act them out. Whatever works for you. Think about how you can use illustrations on each page to make any particular moment funnier or sadder or more impactful.
Think about what part of the story will be told in the pictures, and edit your text accordingly. The reader does not need to be told twice. Usually this means, at the very least, that any scene descriptions can be cut. If these descriptions are vital to the story, put them in a concise illustration note at the start of the relevant spread.
If the illustrations will be telling a different story to what you’ve written in the words, make this clear in an illustration note. However, avoid unnecessary illustration notes – if they're not vital to your story, leave them out. You can always keep a copy of any detailed illustration ideas – you never know, they may come in handy later!
Are the page-turn moments working?
Is the end of each spread written in the best possible way, so that the reader simply has to turn the page to see what happens next?
Have you used the same kind of page-turn too often? It may be that this particular page-turn device (e.g. splitting ellipses over two spreads) is a feature of your particular story, in which case it could be fine. But if this isn’t the case, think about whether there are any alternative ways you could create an exciting page-turn without becoming formulaic.
Does enough happen? Does too much happen? What is your hook?
Try writing the logline/elevator pitch for your picture book. If you struggle to find enough interesting things to say about your story to ‘hook’ the reader/agent/editor, the chances are that you need to look at it again. Perhaps you need to have a more interesting character? Or to raise the stakes for the protagonist? Or to have a more unusual setting? Ask yourself ‘what if…?’ You are writing for children – anything is possible!
If you are struggling to sum up everything that happens in your picture book in one pitch, it could be that you’ve got too much happening. Could the story be split into two separate stories?
Is the word count okay?
The word count of published picture books varies greatly, but there has been a trend in recent years for shorter picture books. The current advice is to aim for your picture book manuscript to be 400 - 600 words, with 500 words being the ‘sweet spot’.
It isn’t just the overall word count that you should consider, but also how the words are spread throughout the book.
The number of words on each spread does not need to be the same each time. In fact, it can be highly effective to have a double-paged spread that is wordless (or very nearly wordless) to let the illustrations work their magic. However, you need to ensure you don’t have too many words on any one spread.
There is no set rule, but once my double-spread word count gets towards 70 (often much lower) I start to look for ways to cut words. This ensures your story is paced properly throughout your book, but is also a practical issue – the higher the spread’s word count, the more difficult it will be to actually fit the words on the page with the pictures.
Has the manuscript used the best possible language?
With so few words available, you need to make sure that you eek the most out of every single word. Choose words that are fun to say, use alliteration, onomatopoeia, internal rhythm and rhyme. Anything that will really make your writing pop!
Is the beginning and ending strong enough?
The start of the book needs to grab the reader’s attention. Remember, the audience likely consists of a tired grown-up and one or more tired small children – they need to be engrossed in the story from the very beginning.
The ending is just as important. It’s so disappointing when a story just fizzles out. No matter how brilliant the previous 11 spreads were, if the last spread doesn’t work, it will likely be this sense of disappointment that lingers. Can you end in a way that makes the reader laugh? Or that brings tears to their eyes? Can you end with a surprising twist?
You may be desperate to finish the book (I know - I’ve been there!) but you owe it to yourself and your story to invest time and energy in crafting the perfect ending.
Basic punctuation, grammar, spelling
Check the whole manuscript for these basic points. It can be easy to overlook the basics when you are focussing on everything else, but it is so important to get them right.
Write Draft 2!
Once you’ve done all of the above, you’ll hopefully be in a position to edit your first draft into a stronger second draft! Hooray!
But draft three is just over the horizon – it’s now time for your critique partners to have their turn!